On Water


1. Lots of Swimming, and Ice Sculptures

It’s nice to find universal things, those experiences that are felt across the globe and throughout time. Here’s Jack Pendarvis, The Believer’s newest columnist, on clouds: “Clouds are just about the same now as they were in the time of the dinosaurs. Think about it. A dinosaur could look up and see the same clouds you are looking at right now. For this reason scientists agree that clouds will one day help us in our studies of dinosaurs. Way to go, clouds!”

Rain, too. It hasn’t rained here recently, but that isn’t necessary to remember what it feels like. Smells like. The way it patterns a window. Or hammers the roof. It’s the same in Tibet as it is in Kansas. Almost every child knows what it is to stand under a roof, a gray-blue screen obscuring whatever’s usually out the window. Whether the roof is leaky thatch or well-insulated tile, the rain outside is the same.

Weather itself isn’t quite universal, some people never experience snow or thunderstorms. But the common denominator in every weather pattern is water. Water that just falls to earth randomly. In random forms. Most of us at some point have pondered this, water’s mystic power—it gives life, and it taketh away. We drink it, but are terrified of drowning. It makes things grow, but a wave can destroy an entire village in seconds. We bathe in it. We use it to cook, clean, and put out fires.

I was especially aware of this one day while I washed the dirt and tangible smog out of a hole in my foot. The wound was a result of my TOMS, an especially decrepit pair I finally had to toss.  If you don’t know what TOMS are, here’s a rundown:

Pro: For every pair you buy, TOMS donates a pair to a child who doesn’t have shoes.

Con: They disintegrate rather quickly.

Pro: They’re relatively cheap.

Con: Wear them without socks and they smell like rotten cantaloupe rind after a while.

Pro: They’re very stylish, mainly because social consciousness is stylish.

Con: Later in life you will have back problems.

My right shoe developed a good-sized hole in the bottom last spring, but I kept wearing them until finally a piece of glass hit a bulls-eye. So there I was, in the shower, washing the wound, and I was in awe of water. I was cleansing a wound with the same thing I would use to clean a skillet. The same thing I could boil to kill nasty bacteria. The same thing we run to get out of when it’s cold and run to get in to when it’s hot. One might conclude, with no further evidence, that water is the source of life (something actually agreed upon by NASA scientists). And if so, maybe there’s something more to it than a couple hydrogen molecules mingling with an oxygen.

A new book recently came out. One of those gigantic, this-will-explain-the-world tomes of nonfiction. It’s called Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, and is written in the style, I presume, of other such tri-noun tomes like Guns, Germs, and Steel. Well, if water is on my mind, this 596-page history would seem, like its topic, a valuable resource. But I’m more interested in public perception and cultural values than I am in a topic’s factual milieu. So when I want to research something, I go to my iTunes library, figuring you can deduce a lot about cultural values through the iconic language of song titles. In my library alone, which is probably representative of maybe 0.023% of all music (but certainly has no bias toward water-related songs), there is 3.8 hours-worth of music whose titles refer to water in some form. It exists in every potential fashion. Jack Johnson says drink it, Dave Matthews says don’t. Rachael Yamagata says meet her by it. The Henry Clay People warn there’s something in it. Feist wrote a song simply called “The Water,” which inspired Kevin Drew to make a film simply called The Water, which has, as its main subject—simply—a large body of water.

From Counting Crows to Justice to Tom Waits, everybody’s crooning about it.

And so my research supports a long-held idea of mine: that if I ever started my own religion—decided to throw in the towel and just wing it—I would put water as my central deity. Makes sense. It holds more visible power than most supposed gods.

Starting an alternative religion can get tricky though. You have to avoid the pitfalls of certain predecessors. Like Raëlism, which purports that we’re the genetic engineering of advanced humanoid extraterrestrials. Or Ho No Hana, which pretended to diagnose illnesses by “reading feet,” pocketing 900 bucks a session.

I’d keep it simple. Lots of swimming and ice sculptures. We’d be the most hydrated congregation on Sundays. We could bob for apples instead of taking communion. Have a dunk tank for baptism. Essentially, church would be like a small-town county fair.

2. Salt Water

I first experienced water’s real power in Hawaii. There were six of us crammed into a two-bedroom for a summer. One day we went to Sandy’s, a locals-only place famous for bodysurfing. Even though we technically lived there, we stuck out. For one, we were vibrant specimens of the Caucasian race, but we also were visibly in awe of the doomsday devices masquerading as waves. Every few seconds, they crashed into the shore, plowing the sand up toward the sunbathers.

The lifeguards approached us. “Are you planning on getting in?” We looked at each other. Finally someone said, noncommittally, “Uh, I don’t know. Maybe.” The lifeguard seemed to take this as bad sign, like he knew the waves would smell the fear on us, like dogs can. “Well, just so you know, yesterday somebody broke their neck here. So be careful. It’s really dangerous.” We shrugged him off and staked out a plot of sand, unfurling our towels and kicking off our flip-flops lazily to prove how not terrified we were. Maybe I was the only one terrified. But I doubt it. How often do you do something that recently caused a person’s neck to snap in half?

I had some trouble just getting in.  This was because I didn’t understand the basic ideology of the doomsday machines. If you planted your feet and resisted—imagine a skinny kid facing a bulldozer—you were swept off your feet, flipped upside down, and dragged up the beach where you were deposited, choking and looking as Haole as they come. Instead, I eventually discovered, you had to dive straight into the wave and push hard until you reached air.

Once you did that, all you had to do was the bodysurfing part. Piece of cake.

Already slightly paralyzed after a few run-ins with the bulldozer, I was scared to put myself at the precipice of any of the larger waves, but it’s the only way to really get it. So once I’d mustered up enough courage, I positioned myself so the next one almost came down on top of me and swam like crazy.

When you caught it and torpedoed through the wave’s tunnel into the plumage of white water and sand, it was amazing. Still terrifying. But amazing. And you got up and ran back in.

However. When we caught it wrong. It hurt. If you were too slow, you were fine. It was like missing the bus. You just wait for the next one. But when you overshot, when you got ahead of it and looked down—the ground sinking away below you, seemingly being swallowed by a beast—you knew it was about to swallow you too. The bus was coming. And you were in the middle of the street.

At the breaking point you’re about as high above ground as if you were lying on the roof of a one-story house, peeking over the side. You can see straight down because of the arc, and there’s suddenly nothing between you and the sloping sand. Gravity gives a sharp tug, and, using our heavy machinery metaphor, it is extremely like being a little kid and falling off the front end of a moving bulldozer. Hitting the ground hurts enough, but a split second later the blade pushes two tons of soil and brick and fractured rebar into your face and pummels you up a hill. No matter how determined you are to keep yourself upright, you’re thrown every which way, and you wind up with salt water gushing down your throat and out your nose and your head feels instantaneously pneumonic.

But the pain is a relief. As is motion in your limbs. Because these are signs you aren’t paralyzed. Your vertebrae are still intact, your spine has not splintered, and you feel up for just one more.

3. The Term for a Phobia of Water

The insanity that summer was unusual. Not strictly because of its death-defying nature, but because from about age 6 to 19, I couldn’t swim. Didn’t know how. I was scared of water. I did my best to retain a sort of polite working relationship with it. We were acquaintances. I felt it was a mutual thing.

But then in 3rd grade, physical education began to include swimming, and from that point on, every year, in late spring, as the weather warmed, we all began paying attention to the empty shell that was the wintertime municipal pool, which happened to sit directly across the street from our elementary school. On the bus ride in, they would look for signs that the men who were paid to do it every year—I don’t know who they were—were filling the pool with water. Huge hoses would one day sprout from the ground like the worms from Tremors, be slung across the ground and draped over the edge of the deep end. At first washing the winter’s coagulated muck into the drains, the geysers then filled the pool with that glistening, summery, chlorine-infused water.

I was among the one, perhaps two students who dreaded this. It meant trips across the street with towels and swim trunks and fear, which was exacerbated by the single-file line we marched in. It was like we were POWs being marched around the camp. Or in my case, heading for the water-boarding chamber. My fear was heightened because I quickly learned that PE teachers don’t like pussies, which is what I was labeled as soon as I told him I couldn’t swim and wouldn’t be participating. As punishment, we (the other student and I, who I’m pretty sure was mentally handicapped) would walk laps around the pool.

One day I forgot my towel. This shouldn’t have been a problem—I wasn’t swimming. But the teacher made everyone shower after pool time, so after I’d walked my laps, I followed the other boys into the changing room. I grabbed my bag—the one I thought had a towel in it—and took my shower. Then, naked and sopping wet, I realized my mistake.

Now as the one boy who was scared of water, I was not an especially popular kid. So I couldn’t ask for help. I’d get whipped. Or worse. So I loitered in the shower, in a stall, anywhere my naked scrawniness wouldn’t be noticed, until everyone else had left. I looked for paper towels. Only a hand-dryer. I looked for a discarded or forgotten towel. Nothing. So I went to my pile of clothes, grabbed a sock, and started drying off my dripping body with its rankness. It got wetter and wetter, and I only became somewhat drier. I kept at it, dragging the heavy cotton across my arms and legs, shaking out my hair the best I could.

I switched socks to finish the job, which wasn’t so much a finishing as it was a feeble attempt to appear like I hadn’t just dried myself with a pair of socks. I put on my clothes, slipped my shoes over my cold, raisiny feet, and ran to catch up with my classmates.

4. The Term for Pretending to Have a Phobia of Water

Middle school was full of similar experiences, so by high school I’d withdrawn almost completely from water-related activities. This was the age when you were supposed to get together with friends at the lake and drink parent-supplied Coors Light on someone’s pontoon boat and lust after your current crush. It was the age when summer meant total freedom, camping, swimming, boating, water-skiing, lusting after crushes. It was the age to not be terrified of water.

But I was. And I accepted it. Which would be the end of a rather dull story except for one small fact: I never was actually scared of water. My mother taught me to swim like all good mothers do; we splashed around in the kiddie pool for a couple years, then made our big-kid-pool debut, me with brightly colored floaty-devices ballooned around my arms. After that I earned concession-stand money by diving for quarters. There were no drownings or traumatic bathtub incidents. Not even a minor mishap.

The terrified-of-water story was born out of a different kind of fear—the terror of being different. Not just a little different. So different that I thought being scared of water—and the subsequent annual ostracism—was probably the better option.

My fear of water was actually a fear of taking my shirt off. Because under it were two small marks—two circles with inferior, concentric circles inside them. From a distance they would be invisible. Closer up, they might be moles or freckles. But if you bent down and really looked at them, noted their symmetrical placement (at the bottom of my rib cage, spaced about five inches apart), and the raised, pin-sized bump in the middle, it became clear what they were: nipples. Two extra ones. I had the normal two, normal sized; and two more, tiny and undeveloped.

Unlike a kid with a stub for an arm, my abnormality—a mutation the doctors assured my parents would never further develop—was by-and-large covered up. Which meant that I’d never had to deal with it. But then came 3rd grade, and PE, and swimming. Out of necessity, I developed my phobia of water. I denied myself a small normality in exchange for a much larger one. I became different in a different way. A way I figured would cost me fewer friends. Being a pussy’s better than being a mutant.

Eventually I became good at covering when someone would find out. In my theatrical phase, the joke was that I was going to go join Professor Xavier’s School of whatever it is. Or that they shot laser beams. Or that I was actually the part human and part cow.

But then, when I met my girlfriend, Allison, who’s now my wife, I eventually had to let go of the whole thing. We increasingly spent time together, and once she knew, who else mattered? Plus, she taught me how to swim again.

5. The Term for Pretending To Have a Phobia of Water. And Obtaining a Phobia of Water

We hopped the fence. It was dark. This was my first swimming lesson in about 15 years. I was nervous, which was surprising. Why was I so scared?

As it turned out, in a case of sharp-witted irony, the result of my decade of excuses, pretense, and lies was precisely the fear I’d pretended to have to take the focus of my birth defect. I became scared of water. Heightened by the number of times I’d heard my own mouth confess that I wasn’t comfortable with water, I’d unwittingly convinced myself.

But this wasn’t a phobia. It was just the normal, human fear of the unknown. I relinquished the decade-and-a-half-long pretense and jumped in. As Allison taught me proper strokes, I was more just learning to be comfortable in the water again. I stretched out my arms and pushed my body up, sinking a bit into the cold cushion of the nighttime water. But floating.

A final few notes on water. First, it is thought to be the cause of Icelanders’ lengthy life spans—something about volcanic purification. Secondly, water bars exist. In Waikiki, they exist in bright white lights and slick, curved architecture, futuristic like Hollywood does futuristic. I remember thinking, “If desalinization of ocean water is possible”—this is what the place was selling—“why all the water scarcity stuff?” Then I read that it’s simply too expensive to be a viable option for 6 billion people.

Lastly, if I ever decide water does deserve my undivided spiritual attention, I want to write two books: 1) The Little Book of Water Deities, based off Pixar animator Sanjay Patel’s The Little Book of Hindu Deities, which is without doubt the cutest religious text ever published; and 2) Divining the Divine, because what a witty and perfect metaphor for searching for God: you hold out a forked stick and wander aimlessly. Sounds about right.

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